Judge: Ballots in Wrong Precinct Won't Count

The state must reject provisional ballots if they are cast in the wrong precinct, a federal judge said Thursday in the latest in a series of opinions on how such votes should be counted.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle (search) ruled voters who show up at a polling place and aren't on the rolls should be allowed to submit a provisional ballot — in case it's later determined they were in the properly assigned precinct.

But he said federal law doesn't require the state to count the ballot if it's determined the voter submitted the ballot somewhere other than the assigned precinct.

A provisional ballot is held until officials determine if the person was entitled to vote. If they should have been allowed to vote, the ballot counts; if not, it's thrown out.

The ruling comes in a case brought by Democrats, who wanted the judge to block Secretary of State Glenda Hood from ordering that provisional ballots be tallied only if they were cast in the correct precinct.

Hood spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the ruling was "a victory for all Floridians who want an orderly election" Nov. 2.

"Florida law simply requires that those who use provisional ballots be treated equally with all other voters who have to cast their ballots in their assigned precinct," Faraj said.

Mark Herron, a lawyer for the Democrats, said Hinkle's ruling doesn't make sense. "You'd think people who are entitled to vote are entitled to have their ballots counted," he said.

Herron said the party hadn't decided whether to appeal.

Provisional ballots are required nationally for the first time this year. They are supposed to prevent what happened in the 2000 election, when an estimated 1.5 million registered voters were mistakenly turned away from the polls because of clerical errors or other problems.

Democrats have sued in states where election officials have ruled that provisional ballots should not be considered valid if voters cast them in the wrong precinct — a potential disadvantage to poor people who tend to move more frequently.

The election officials say the measures are needed to ensure fair elections, but Democrats say it unconstitutionally disenfranchises voters who may not know their polling place.

Federal judges around the country have issued differing opinions on the matter.

In Michigan, a judge said provisional ballots must be counted if cast by voters at the wrong precinct but in the right city, township or village. In Ohio, a judge ruled voters who show up at the wrong polling place can still cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered.

In Missouri and Colorado, judges have ruled votes in the wrong place don't have to be counted.

The Florida Democratic Party had asserted prospective voters have a right to have their ballot counted whether they're at the proper polling precinct or not; Democrats argued voters in Florida are registered in a particular county, not a neighborhood.